These days there’s a lot of talk about calories, saturated fat and functional foods. In this complex environment, how do you know if you and your family are getting the nutrients you need to grow and prosper? Eating today shouldn’t be more difficult than it was 100 years ago, so here are ten easy-to-follow “rules of thumb” to help your family eat without stressing about the often-insignificant details.
1. Know What Should Your Plate Should Look Like
If you know what your plate should look like, it’s easy to glance at a meal and determine what’s missing. Visualize a healthy plate: one half of the plate each for veggies, and one quarter of the plate for protein and starch. Feel free to eat more veggies, but start to worry if your plate has less.
This is trickier with some dishes than with others. Pasta, for example, can be a challenging dish in which to segregate ingredients. Look in your pasta bowl. Would the quantity of pasta there cover more than one-quarter of your plate? What if you took out some pasta and added kale or broccoli or green beans? Does your pasta bowl now look more like a healthy plate should?
2. Don’t Drink Your Calories
Despite popular belief, kids don’t need juice. The USDA recommends no more that ½- to ¾-cup of juice per day. Why? Fruit naturally comes packaged with fiber, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, some of which are lost in juice processing. When you drink juice, the sugar gives you an energy boost but you don’t get the fiber that keeps you feeling physically full. As a result, you drink a bunch of calories… and then you eat even more. Consuming 100 extra calories per day can lead to a 10 pound weight gain in one year! Instead, stick to water, milk or a milk substitute (not chocolate milk) and only serve juice once per day.
3. Eat the Rainbow
What color is your food? Are you serving only foods in hues of golden brown? Brightly colored foods such as lettuce, peppers, strawberries and oranges provide essential nutrients and fiber. If your plate looks like a rainbow, you won’t have to worry about whether you are getting enough vitamins and minerals!
4. Use the Right Fats
Fat is crucial for cell structure and keeping you full. You need fat. Yes, really! The main issue with fats is making sure they don’t burn, which can create compounds that really are bad for you. Use olive oil to cook at medium heat or below, but try high-heat avocado or sunflower oil for frying and sautéing. Finally, up your anti-inflammatory omega-3 intake with flax oil in salad dressing and drizzled on cooked veggies. Never heat flax oil!
5. Whole Grain Goodness
Whole grains, whether they contain wheat or are gluten-free, contribute essential B-vitamins and fiber to your healthy diet. A recent study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that eating whole grains in place of refined grains went along with less deep belly fat and a smaller waist circumference. The best part is, you don’t have to think about how to get whole grains because they’re everywhere! Just substitute in the whole grain version of any grain you’re eating. In with the brown rice, quinoa, whole-wheat pasta, pita and bread, out with the white rice and Wonder Bread!
6. Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat
Cook and serve foods that you love, and your kids will love them too. Kids don’t need special foods with cartoon characters on the box—they need to see their parents eating healthy, nutritious meals. Don’t worry; they’ll mimic your behavior, just like they do with certain “choice” words!
Yes, you know you need to cook, but why? Restaurants and processed foods depend on three key ingredients to make their food taste good: fat, sugar and salt. What this means is that preparing a homemade grilled cheese sandwich from fresh ingredients will be healthier than a frozen burrito and much healthier than eating out at a fast-food restaurant. Add a few carrot sticks and apple slices and suddenly your grilled-cheese sandwich is a nutritious, well-rounded meal that will support your family’s mental and physical health.
8. Eating: Divide the Responsibilities
The most common complaint that dietitians hear from concerned parents is that their kids won’t eat. They won’t eat their veggies at mealtime (or really anything at all!). The pre-eminent expert on children’s eating behavior, Ellyn Satter, suggests a very clear-cut division of responsibility for kids and adults. Parents decide what the food is, where it is served and what time—kids decide if they are going to eat and how much. Don’t cajole or bribe your kids to eat, and in return, ask them to keep complaints to themselves.
Set an eating schedule and make sure your kids know they will receive regular meals and snacks. Then close the revolving kitchen door! Snacking and drinking caloric beverages throughout the day is a major contributor to both childhood and adult obesity. You shouldn’t eat all the time, and neither should your children. If you have set meal and snack times, all of you will be ready and willing to eat the nutritious meals you prepare!
9. Get Everyone Involved!
Just as kids are more likely to eat vegetables they’ve grown in the garden, they’re also more likely to eat foods they’ve helped pick out and prepare. Kids of any age can help prepare meals. Young children can tear up lettuce for a salad and carry silverware to the table. Older kids can mix ingredients and peel potatoes. A plethora of resources and books are available with tips and tricks for cooking with kids, including the new website The Kids Cook Monday. The Kids Cook Monday provides recipes, videos, and a step-by-step guide to cooking with your children.
10. Sit Down and Smile!
When writing this article, your author polled her dietitian friends on what advice they would give, and almost all of them said the same thing: eat at the table, eat together without distractions and chat only about positive topics. The dinner table is not the time to discuss pressing homework, grades and conflicts at work. Stress disrupts digestion by drawing blood away from the stomach, and it makes eating unpleasant! You and your kids should be excited about cooking and eating together. If mealtime is tense, no one will want to be there!
At the end of the day, the most important thing is to engender in your kids is a love of food that’s rooted in family, cooking, and togetherness. Good health and nutrition will come if they pay just a little bit of attention to what is going into their bodies and learn to enjoy everything that goes along with eating real food.
Written by Autumn Hoverter, MS, RDN
United States Department of Agriculture (2010). MyPyramid. Retrieved October 20, 2010 from http://www.mypyramid.gov/
McKeown, N.M, Troy, L.M., Jacques, P.F., Hoffmann, U., O’Donnell, C.J., Fox, C.S. (2010) Whole- and refined-grain intakes are differentially associated with abdominal visceral and subcutaneous adiposity in healthy adults: the Framingham Heart Study. 2010 92: 1165-1171. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.29106
Satter, E. (2005). Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming. Madison, WI: Kelcy Press.
The Kids Cook Monday! (2010) Retrieved October 20, 2010 from http://www.healthymonday.org/the-kids-cook-monday/
Autumn Hoverter, MS, RDN